Campaign to repatriate stolen Turkish artifacts

In May, I was in Berlin as part of the German government’s guest program to take a peek at the investigations into the neo-Nazi murders of 10 people, eight of them ethnic Turks. On the last day of our visit, we strolled into Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, home to many excavated pieces, including the Zeus Altar which had been brought from its original location in Turkey. I was teasing our gracious German host about possibly returning the Pergamon pieces back to their birthplace. He was visibly distressed by my remarks.

Well, it may not be possible to have all of the Pergamon pieces returned to Turkey because of legal issues; the German side says they were exported to Germany in line with the national laws of Turkey at the time, i.e., official sultan’s decrees giving license to German archeologists to ship them to Germany. It may be entirely possible to raise legal counterarguments disputing the German claims today, considering how the legal code has been evolving under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stewardship.

There are too many precious artifacts that have been stolen and smuggled out of Turkey over the years and, in some cases, centuries. Some of them are on display at the world’s most renowned museums while others are in the hands of private collectors. On Monday over dinner, I talked to Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay, who made it crystal clear that the government will not let up on its aggressive global campaign to recover stolen Turkish artifacts. “I am warning private collectors and art dealers who deal with art thieves to stop acquiring stolen artifacts belonging to Turkey’s cultural heritage,” he said.

The minister seemed very determined to go after anyone or any institution that still possesses stolen pieces from Turkey. “I know some collectors in the Gulf region who got their hands on some stolen Turkish artifacts. We’ll do everything in our power to retrieve them from these unscrupulous individuals,” he vowed. The ministry’s General Directorate of Museums and Cultural Assets is acting as a watchdog agency in tracking down a number of historic works and artifacts smuggled out of Turkey. A number of countries, including the US, Germany, Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Italy, France, Switzerland, Serbia, Montenegro, Ukraine and the UK, have some of these pieces.

Günay’s ministry is pushing for bilateral agreements with other countries at the government level for legal basis to retrieve illegally smuggled pieces. The latest one will be signed with Greece, he revealed. “Private collectors and auction houses are very much concerned over this campaign,” Günay said, adding that Turkey, as a member of the UNESCO committee to prevent the smuggling of historic artifacts, will keep pushing this national campaign at the global level.

Turkey’s intensive campaign on retrieving its stolen artifacts comes on the heels of the impressive performance by the Turkish hospitality and tourism industry in the last decade. Turkey was ranked sixth on a list of countries that received the highest number tourists in the world last year, and 10th in terms of the revenue it had earned from tourism. The number of tourists totaled 31.4 million in 2011, a 9.86 percent increase from a year earlier, adding revenues of $23 billion to the government’s coffers. Günay expects the number of visitors to be around the same by the end of the year, with an extra $2 billion to be earned from tourism revenue. He believes that valuable pieces recovered from abroad will help to increase the number of tourists to Turkey.

The Turkish campaign to restitute historic pieces has been successful to a degree, though much remains to be done. In the last decade, more than 4,000 pieces were successfully retrieved, with 3,327 pieces repatriated during Günay’s tenure as minister since 2008.

During this decade-long campaign, the ministry has gained valuable experience in dealing with negotiations with their counterparts as well as with private collectors, auction houses and museum directors. Keeping track of smuggled pieces requires expertise in sorting out a wide range of issues, including verification and authentication, as well as addressing legal mechanisms for repatriation. In some cases, Turkish officials have had to do some arm-twisting to do some convincing in negotiations with the other side.

For example, the Turkish government decided to review the licenses of several foreign archeologists whose governments are unwilling to cooperate with Turkey on the retrieval of stolen artifacts. Today, 48 out of 171 excavations in total are being conducted by foreign archeological teams. More and more funds are appropriated for excavation from the government’s budget, with over TL 40 million allocated in 2011, up from TL 1.7 million in 2003. The campaign was further strengthened in March with a new policy of not lending artifacts to foreign museums that posses stolen art pieces from Turkey. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum were the first ones to taste the bitterness of this new policy.

The last successfully recovered historic pieces were 24 Troy artifacts from the Penn Museum in Philadelphia after a legal battle for their return which began during the days of the Ottoman Empire. Efforts to retrieve Troy artifacts from the Pushkin Museum in Russia are also under way. Last month, 16th-century ceramic tiles that were stolen from the Sinan Paşa Mosque in Bursa in 1998 and taken to England were returned to Turkey. The 3,500-year-old Boğazköy Sphinx, kept at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin since 1917, was finally returned to Turkey last November. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan picked up the top half of an 1,800-year-old statue of Weary Hercules from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and brought it back on his own plane on a return visit from Washington, D.C., last year. A stolen hoard of Lycian gold was handed over to Turkey by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

More importantly, I think, Günay has been successful in generating enough public interest in Turkey surrounding the campaign of repatriating stolen artifacts and has raised the public’s awareness on the issue. No matter who takes over his seat in the next reshuffle of the Cabinet, s/he will be under pressure to keep fighting for this campaign to protect Turkey’s cultural property worldwide and to ensure the return of stolen artifacts simply because public pressure will linger on for a long period of time.

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